April 3, 2018

Roseanne, 20-some years later

Since this is now the most talked-about pop culture phenomenon, there are several layers to discuss -- the show itself, the audience's reactions to the show, the pundits' commentary on the audience's reaction to the show, and on and on.

The show itself is a time warp back to good writing and performances, rather than what passes for comedy today -- which is built on random wackiness instead of humor, a self-aware rather than naturalistic tone, and driven by a series of buzzwords, references, and one-liners that do not require a particular place, cast, or narrative for them to be made, instead of humor arising from the how the distinctive characters interact with each other, their time, and their place, according to a plotline.

The political aspects of the show are no different from the original -- working-class populism based on the daily challenges of living below the top 10-20%, with the hot-button issues being mostly one-off distractions like the "very special episodes" of the 1980s and early '90s. They are not trotted out to score cheap rhetorical points against an enemy in a highly polarized debate, but presented as obstacles of contemporary society that everyone in the cast must work together to find a solution to.

When the high schoolers on Saved By the Bell encountered the problem of homelessness, no one ham-fistedly said, "Well, what do we expect with Republicans in the White House and trickle-down Reaganomics continuing to fail the working class?" The point would have been taken, but it would not have fit into the genre of a sit-com or drama.

Cycles of political tension and collective violence go in 50-year cycles, according to Peter Turchin's research, the last peak landing around 1970 and another expected to land around 2020. The valley between those peaks was the first half of the '90s, and that's when the non-partisan "very special episodes" were common, whether on sit-coms like Saved By the Bell and Roseanne, or dramas like My So-Called Life and the early seasons of Law & Order.

Political tension within sit-com writing and acting was a lot higher during the last peak, as seen on All In the Family. Presumably those tensions will re-emerge as we approach the upcoming peak. But so far in the Roseanne revival, the format of "characters playing out a national partisan political debate" was limited to Roseanne and Jackie airing their grievances over the 2016 election as a cathartic form of making up and moving on with their personal relationship.

I just don't see the target audience craving a partisan knife fight between cardboard cut-outs standing in for the Dumbocraps and the Rethuglicans.

The unexpectedly weak partisanship and the relative minimization of culture war issues stems from the show's working-class characters and setting. The culture war only matters to middle-class and elite people, who are well-off enough on a material level to have free time, money, and cognitive resources to worry about airy-fairy issues. People with more pressing material concerns are not interested in debates about trannies and bathrooms.

As Andrew Gelman and colleagues have shown, partisan polarization is minimal among poor people but wide as hell among the wealthy. The real culture war is between the elites who got rich through the oil industry vs. those who got rich through the media industry, not between construction workers in Texas vs. construction workers in California.

Contra Thomas Frank, the culture war is not the opiate of the masses, but of the chattering middle and upper classes.

And sure enough, the Roseanne revival's main audience is the Rust Belt, according to Nielsen ratings by media market, showing that the appeal is for people whose material prosperity traditionally came from certain kinds of economic activity -- not certain ideologies, or certain religious practices, or whatever else.

The show has not been welcomed in the South, southern Appalachia, Texas, or the Mountain West (landing with a thud in Roseanne's hometown of Salt Lake City). The only place outside the Rust Belt where it did well was Tulsa, OK, which is part of the Ozarks. While some of those regions, especially the South, have seen the disappearance of manufacturing and industrial jobs, they have also seen a deluge of post-industrial tech-bubble jobs, unlike the Great Lakes region.

The Sun Belt has also seen a flood of immigrants who will work for peanuts, allowing the middle class and elites to enjoy a higher standard of living than their counterparts in the Rust Belt. Need your yard landscaped, or your kitchen remodeled? Why hire an American when you can hire a cheaper immigrant? This decline in concern for their fellow Americans, especially the working class, is reflected in their "whatever" attitude toward the should-be all-American appeal of Roseanne.

MSNBC dug up the ratings by media market from the show's first season in the late '80s, and it was a hit all around the country -- Seattle, Albuquerque, Knoxville, Wilkes-Barre, etc., not just the Midwest. But that was before NAFTA and other globalist free trade deals hollowed out the manufacturing sector in those places, before the rise of the tech bubble economy, and before partisan and regional and cultural polarization had reached the high levels of today.

It's not surprising that the show's revival is not popular in places that have become over-run with liberal tech-bubble yuppie transplants. But it is striking how lukewarm or cold the reception has been in the Greater South.

It would be King of the Hill, not Roseanne, whose revival would do best in those places. Although it is a symptom rather than cause, the rise of cultural phenomena like King of the Hill that eclipsed those like Roseanne shows how the Republican party lost the Reagan Democrats of the Great Lakes, who would only return -- likely for just one trial election -- if they would speak to the concerns of the audience for Roseanne instead of the audience for King of the Hill.

The stark contrast between the two shows goes right over the heads of the clueless liberal elites, who lump everyone who is not a creative-class professional living on the coasts, into the same "basket of deplorables" -- whether that's a white working-class family outside of Chicago, or a conservative household outside of Dallas headed by a manager / salesman, since that manager works for the gas & energy sector rather than an informational sector.

Aside from Hank Hill being a manager rather than a worker, his personality and lifestyle could not be more different from Dan Conner's -- mild-mannered, long-suffering, deferential, puritanical, devout, gentle, well-behaved, and workaholic. He is the Protestant Work Ethic incarnate. Also naive, impressionable, and welcoming of immigrants -- characteristically Nordic and Lutheran.

Dan Conner is a Celt of no particular religion, yet who feels compelled to reinforce cultural norms more than Hank, who may be more personally repulsed but who keeps it to himself. As someone who it is not easy to walk all over, Dan is a more masculine character, which threatens not only the soft-handed coder who votes Democrat, but also the keep-your-head-down regional manager for Chili's who votes Republican. More temperamental, he fights and puts down his foot more often than Hank, but is also more playful, charming, and funny.

In a cultural landscape populated by polarized figures, it's welcome to see someone like Dan who is neither an effete liberal degenerate nor a spineless conservative wet blanket.

But it isn't just liberal elites who mindlessly conflate Dan Conner and Hank Hill. Conservative elites have been just as clueless, always expecting to win the votes of the Dan Conners of the Rust Belt, just because he isn't a homosexual owner of a Manhattan PR firm. He may not be -- but neither is he a manager for a Texas oil-related company, nor a pointless defense contractor in Virginia feeding off of the bloated federal budget.

These Dan Conner guys keep voting Democrat, who take them for granted. They gave Trump a shot, but will start shifting back to voting Democrat as that party re-aligns itself under the Bernie revolution, giving them Democrats they don't have to hold their nose for (like Connor Lamb).

When they took these guys for granted, they would only give them token benefits for having voted Democrat -- stage their ads in a small-town diner, give them Chris Matthews to present the evening news, and hire Bruce Springsteen to headline their fundraisers.

Now that these voters have temporarily defected to Trump, the Democrats must now actually deliver cold hard results that improve their standard of living -- and that means not obsessing over giving amnesty to cheap-labor immigrants who undercut Dan Conner's wages and drive him out of his neighborhood after millions of new residents in his town have bid up the price of housing.

A more interesting development will be Roseanne the character's reaction to the failure of the GOP as an entire party, and Trump individually, to deliver on the campaign themes that were supposed to alter the Reagan party into a working-class populist party. Roseanne the person has never been Republican, having sought the Green Party nomination for president and having voted for Obama. I don't see her character obsessing over the boogeymen for either Fox News or MSNBC and CNN -- Hillary, Comey, Mueller, etc., or for that matter, Trump himself.

Perhaps the most radical departure the show will take from the standard Trump voting crowd will be the de-personalization of the political world, and a focus strictly on the issues. Trump has not only created a personality cult around himself, he only sees things in personal rather than institutional terms -- prizing personal congeniality and loyalty, even if that person cuts completely against the president's stated agenda for re-shaping society's institutions (e.g., John Bolton as National Security Advisor).

Well, the Obama-to-Trump voters don't care about what kind of theatrical performance Trump puts on for his audience, and they have no loyalty to the man or the party in control of the White House. Their vote was a purely transactional, high-risk / high-reward gamble that they took on the candidate who promised to shake up the status quo on an instrumental level, not just rhetorically.

If that gamble does not pay off -- oh well, no big deal, it was a chance they had to take, and now onto Bernie and his people, who look like much more promising candidates for shaking things up and getting shit done for the populist agenda.

We already know how the Republican partisans will respond to the failures of the current administration -- keep complaining about the leaders, keep voting for them anyway, and keep parroting their talking points about corporate tax cuts and deregulation during a populist uprising.

What's up in the air is how the Obama-to-Trump voters are going to respond, especially the Independents rather than the diehard Democrats. Dems will go right back to voting for Dems. But Independents could tune out altogether, glom onto a third party, or turn their attention to getting Bernie's people to take over the Democrat party.

Watch for cultural signals of this shift on Roseanne itself and the audience reactions to it.


  1. "It would be King of the Hill, not Roseanne, whose revival would do best in those places. Although it is a symptom rather than cause, the rise of cultural phenomena like King of the Hill that eclipsed those like Roseanne shows"

    King of the Hill always seemed like a "typical" bland sitcom, "fun" for the whole family, right? Roseanne, and the early seasons of The Simpsons and Married with Children, were products of the populist zeitgeis and outgoing phase of about 1988-1992. Reagan was passe, nobody liked Bush, Boomers were struggling to understand their Gen X children as they grew up; not so much open animosity (like Meathead and Archie), but more well-meaning attempts at crossing a "generation gap" that teens of the late 80's/early 90's were indifferent to, with some sardonic snipes mixed in.

    WRT "issues" episodes, that to me seemed like a way to remind the audience that there were difficult, complex, and sometimes dangerous things that happened in life. People in outgoing times are more comfortable dealing with these issues, whereas after going into cocooning we pretend that everything is NBD. Do we need episodes about under-age drinking, irresponsible gambling, child predators, and the like these days? Hell no, me and everyone I know has just about everything under control; we don't need to be patronized. There's a sense of insecurity and callousness here; I don't NEED anyone telling me about some social issue that's hurting some people, it sucks to be them but why should I care? In addition, the market for sincere "troubled youth" (and to a lesser extent, troubled adult) material dries up during cocooning. Why? People aren't living as fast of lives as they once did. "Special" episodes were like an occasional reminder to slow down, delivered by middle aged messengers to younger audiences who needed guidance.

    I've got the hunch that cocooners buy into the "family-friendly" and "adults-only" angle. Which seems to produce three kinds of alleged entertainment:

    1) Campy and emo joke stuff, because hey, people these days can't sit still for 5 seconds and get bored watching characters who have more low-key interactions.

    2) Bland as hell "family" stuff with every possible edge totally sanded off (meanwhile, He-Man in the early 80's had a demonic sorcerer as a villain); see Disney in the mid-century and Disney in the 2000's and 2010's)

    3) Gratuitously violent, seedy, and taboo disregarding serious R-rated (or unrated) stuff for older viewers, whose lives must be so boring that they get a cheap thrill out of vicarious fantasies involving maladjusted and perverted weirdos; see Breaking bad, or Dexter. Movie examples certainly abound (see: Tarantino), but pay TV really seems to have latched onto "edgy" material. Action and horror movies in the 80's could be very bloody, but viewers were not asked to sympathize with perverts or wallow in nihilism; a good example being Manhunter in which the lead character explicitly says that the killer deserves sympathy as a child, but not as an adult.

    I suppose combos of the first and third type are fairly common, too, as you can tell from the numerous examples of joke splatter movies (and TV shows like the Evil Dead revival) that have come out since the 2000's. There were antecedents to this genre in the 80's (like Return of the Living Dead in '85), but the difference is that the 80's examples had some good characters and also had some genuine suspense and excitement. The "modern" examples tend to be so self-consciously goofy that it undercuts the suspense.

  2. King of the Hill was a hit because it validated the dull, non-confrontational dads who put up with being taken for granted. It celebrated them, even, like they're saints doing the Lord's work.

    That's another major difference from Roseanne -- King of the Hill was more sentimental and kitschy. It's like A Prairie Home Companion for the southern pole of the puritanical Nordic Lutherans of the Great Plains.

    Roseanne was not a mundane hagiography. It poked good-natured fun at its characters, who didn't take themselves so seriously.

    There's probably some liberal version of King of the Hill, involving a doofus dad who works in some informational sector of the economy in a blue state. I'm sure it'll be just as sentimental and kitschy, too.

  3. You obviously didn't pay very close attention to King of the Hill. Hank had a very bad temper / anger issues and he kicked Dale's ass often, intimidated Bill w/ his masculinity, and beat up or physically scared any bully or weirdo who threatened his family or friends. I don't remember Dan doing anything but sitting his fat ass on the couch and letting Roseanne run his life.

    1. thats how im remember the 2 shows as well...55 yrs old

  4. Hank was just a bluffer on "I'm gonna kick your ass". Maybe there were a few episodes where they tried to save his image, but overall he was all talk no action. Typical big-talking Texan.

    And he was insistent on not using corporal punishment for his kids, or even threatening to.

    Dan had his own economic and social life (construction, bike repairs, poker buddies coming over). But being working-class during the Reagan era, his wife had to take on a job as well, and the wife had more of a say in how the household was run.

    That was a struggle and compromise between a patriarch and a matriarch, not a bum sitting on the couch henpecked by his wife -- that was more Al Bundy from Married With Children.

    Dan beat up Jackie's boyfriend Fisher and went to jail for it, after they found out the bf was beating Jackie.

  5. Speaking of corporal punishment for kids, last night's episode of Roseanne was a great portrayal of what's gone wrong with parenting these days.

    Millennials / Gen Z kids are so boundary-crossing in their relations with adults because their coddling parents never made them stay on their side of the line. No more separate "kids' tables," no demands for respect, no insistence that kids not call adults by their first names, etc.

    Corporal punishment is something that only goes one way -- kids can't beat up adults. Arguing, debating, negotiating, screaming -- they most definitely can. Trying to contain kids' bad behavior by arguing with them means you're letting them fight back on a level playing field, and may the best person win.

    Whipping them goes one direction, is not a level playing field, and is meant to nip their bad behavior in the bud.

    Roseanne did an even better job, though, since they have two generations of parents living in the same house, striking a contrast. Most family shows do not show more than one generation, or the extended family, so at most you might see a nuclear family couple discussing how wimpy they are compared to their own parents -- but not see that illustrated vividly by the grandparents being there to put stricter limits on the grandchildren.

    And they highlighted how odd the change was given how rebellious and headstrong Darlene and other Gen X-ers were, and now they're so acquiescent and non-confrontational toward their kids.

    I don't recall any overtly political remarks during the latest episode -- more reassurance that it isn't some lame rah-rah propaganda for Trump the man, and is more about the lives and struggles of the voters who took a chance on him to improve their standing.

  6. Has it ever occurred to you that proles are poor because they don't think too hard about morality? Or about much of anything?

    The elite are either religious because they work hard and play fair and live clean, or are degenerates because they cheat their way to the top. They aren't taking moral sides just because they're comfortably wealthy, but they are comfortably wealthy because they chose a moral path first!

  7. No that did not occur to me because I'm not a retard. And if it did occur to someone who was retarded, why would they try to fob off this explanation on a public that has never seen an elite class that was less moral in its thinking and behavior?

    No one is confused any longer by Republicans and conservatives who talk a big moralistic game in the culture war, attending church every weekend -- and then prove to be as corrupt or more than Democrats, mired in sex scandals, and in general leading the least Christ-like life they possibly could.

    But hey, church and football on Sunday, so don't judge!

  8. You dumb glibertarians are supposed to have dropped the argument about the elites being more moral, given how advanced elite degeneracy has gotten, and moved on to the argument about the elites having a stronger will to power or Social Darwinism or whatever, in totally amoral terms.

    At least make your arguments more relevant and exciting for an audience that is bored and tired of your Nineties bullshit about teaching poor people to behave as morally as Newt Gingrich.

  9. "No more separate "kids' tables," no demands for respect, no insistence that kids not call adults by their first names, etc."

    Didn't early Boomers act like little shits, too? E.g., GI parents thought it was "cute" when their kids broke windows and such in the 40's and 50's. The urgency of preventing delinquency declines during a low crime era; the current Gen X attitude towards parenting may not be unlike how GI parents operated shortly before and during the baby boom. Silents got (somewhat) tougher in the 60's and 70's, then early-mid period Boomers sought to clamp down on their kids in the 80's, in a reversal of how they were treated in the 50's. Late Boomers are somewhere between GIs and early Boomers on parenting issues.

    Another parallel is how both GI and Gen X adults embraced the blurring of generational culture in a cocooning era; almost everything ought to be "family friendly" or an activity "for the whole family" (meanwhile, disturbing signs of teens and adults lacking empathy could be found in both mid-century culture and in post-mid 90's culture, although back in the good old 50's these signs were more veiled, e.g. woman being pictured in bondage while clothed instead of graphic torture porn).

    And remember how Silents and early Boomers ridiculed GIs for being "square", after an outgoing era started and they felt cheated by kiddie mid-century culture? Millennials and Gen Z might start to feel the same way about Gen X in the 2020's, given how Gen X as adults embraced culture that was shallow, boring, and lacking in healthy vigor (note the rise in gay actors; again though, gay actors in the mid-century were more veiled).

    By the 1960's, Silent Gen men were beginning to fight back against the mid-century norm of a humorless husband kept on a tight leash by their woman. It looks like cocooning era pedestilization of women and and emasculation of men eventually results in a misogynistic backlash during the early part of an outgoing era, led by men in their 20's and 30's fed up with being bossed around. Eventually this cools off into fairly pleasant give and take between the genders, as you see in movies and TV from the late 70's and 80's.

  10. "That was a struggle and compromise between a patriarch and a matriarch, not a bum sitting on the couch henpecked by his wife -- that was more Al Bundy from Married With Children."

    Married w/Children demeaned all of it's characters, not just Bundy; Al was nagged a lot, sure, but Peggy was lazy as hell and addicted to shopping, the daughter was a bimbo, and the son was hapless. Elevating women by pushing down men didn't really have popular appeal until the late 90's, when crime began to noticeably decline and having muscle to protect you didn't seem so important anymore. Also, Al Bundy wasn't an example of what a typical guy in the late 80's/early 90's wanted to be. He was an aging stiff resigned to his lot in life. Whereas in the sentimental cocooning era stuff like King of the Hill, patriarchs like Hank Hill are supposed to make boring and insecure people feel better about themselves. Ur right about how lame Hank Hill is; what's so great about being a care taker who frowns on ever deviating from the same routine (crew cut, 9-5 sales job, "listen" to your wife and kids, white T-shirt when he's not at work, exchange banter w/ aging buddies, etc.).

    Now wouldn't be a bad time to point out that Boomers were all middle aged by the late 90's, and the Middle-American ones wanted to be patted on the back for paying their mortgages and walking their kids out to the bus stop on chilly mornings. As much shit as Spielberg gets for ostensibly kiddifying pop culture in the 80's, it's really the 90's when this stuff got out of hand, and it's tough to tell how much of it can be blamed on cocooning Vs America's biggest demographic (Boomers) aging. Probably both, I suppose.

    And oh yeah, cocooning lulled people into a false sense of security, more so older generations who were more comfortable. I guess it didn't really matter that kids were now being given prescription drugs routinely, that almost every state had a legalized lottery, that the ranks of homeless people (and obscenely rich people) were not getting smaller, or that de-industrialization was advancing.

    Funny how people buy into the "victim-less crime" narrative when actual serious crime declines by a great deal. With fewer people being beaten, robbed, raped, or having stimulant induced psychotic/manic episodes, we became more cavalier about all kinds of stuff.

  11. King of the Hill creaters Mike Judge and Greg Daniels don't seem like proleish or even corporeal types. Daniels' mother worked in the New York library and his father was a suit for ABC radio. Daniels had a very "cultured" upbringing, attending Harvard and all. His later work (including the Office and Parks and Rec.) seems attuned to boring and mildly disgruntled middle aged people. Daniels looks very physically generic and soft.

    Mike Judge grew up with an Archaelogist father and a librarian mother (!). He went on to study physics and math. Judge clearly has contempt for prole culture, as you can see in Beavis and Butthead and Idiocracy (Judge, like Bill Hicks, grew up around assholes in the Western US, where elite people tend to trash lower income people as degenerate filth). Judge is physically unimpressive with no apparent athletic background. Judge evidently opposed Trump, even though it's been rumored that he's some kind of libertarian conservative. Yeah, sure.

    Guys like Judge don't believe that intellectual elites are responsible for the state of society. They instead blame the "values" of "junk" culture rotting the morals and functioning of society; we don't have a failure of leadership, but rather, The Original Sin of poor morals and taste. Naturally he's set his latest show in Silicon Valley, of all places, probably the least corporeal place in the entire world.

    We aren't going to get more colorful entertainment until we give more work to colorful directors and actors. I mean, Conan ('82) was directed by a self-described "Zen-fascist" (John Milius). William Friedkin was an avid young basketball player, then got into directing and gave us a series of viscerally thrilling movies: The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer (in which the director caught malaria while shooting in the jungle for weeks on end), and To Live and Die in LA.


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